Elder Ballard on Building a Better Boat

In October 2014, Elder Ballard delivered his “Stay in the Boat” talk at General Conference, highlighting “faith crisis” as an emerging problem for members of the Church and likening it to white-water rapids. In October 2015, he followed up with “God Is at the Helm,” extending his metaphor and providing sage advice for how to stay in the Old Ship Zion. Most recently, he delivered a talk to CES religious educators on February 26, 2016, now posted at LDS.org under the rather bland title “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century.” I think he should have stuck with his winning theme and called it: “Building a Better Boat.”


Everyone ought to read it. Twice. He announced that business as usual in CES just isn’t working anymore: “Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.” The problem is the Internet, which gives students [and all Church members] “instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.” In a rather dramatic departure from business as usual, Elder Ballard directed CES teachers to “understand the doctrinal and historical content and context of the scriptures and our history” by accessing “the best LDS scholarship available.” He specifically told CES teachers to get familiar with the Gospel Topics Essays at LDS.org: “It is important that you know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand.” Elder Ballard also counseled CES teachers “not to pass along faith-promoting or unsubstantiated rumors or outdated understandings and explanations of our doctrine and practices from the past.” He embraced inoculation and directed CES teachers to make it happen for their students:

The effort for gospel transparency and spiritual inoculation through a thoughtful study of doctrine and history, coupled with a burning testimony, is the best antidote we have to help students avoid and/or deal with questions, doubt, or faith crises they may face in this information age.

Reading the talk carefully, it is clear the problem is not the Internet. And to be fair, it’s not really CES teachers that are the problem either. The problem is forty years of a dumbed-down correlated LDS curriculum, which has pushed doctrinal and historical scholarship, even “the best LDS scholarship available,” to the margins of LDS discourse if not completely outside it. But since most would agree that the changes directed by Elder Ballard are the right direction to go, let’s not dwell on the question of who created the problem. I will briefly note what I like and what I worry about before inviting readers to weigh in. And please read the transcript of Elder Ballard’s talk before commenting!

What’s Good

Many good things: Elder Ballard highlighted the Gospel Topics Essays and told CES teachers to go read them and learn them. [I sure hope it’s not the first time these teachers have heard about the essays.] He embraced inoculation, which is a green light to address difficult issues with students despite the pushback most teachers (particularly early morning seminary teachers) will inevitably receive from a few parents. And he endorsed LDS scholarship as a solution to the problem rather than as the problem itself, which is how a good number of General Authorities seemed to view LDS doctrinal and historical scholarship in the past. If an earlier generation of leaders had supported The Story of the Latter-day Saints as a worthy successor volume to Essentials in Church History, the Church would not be in such a deep hole at the present moment. But Elder Ballard is pointing us in the right direction, and arguably the up and coming generation is the right place to start with a revised curriculum and CES teachers are the right people to make the change.

What’s Still a Problem

Elder Ballard’s remarks are not a solution — they are the first step towards a solution. Just the first step. It is promising that the talk and a transcript were posted at LDS.org. This suggests that what we might call “the Ballard Initiative” will be taken up and supported by other LDS leaders in coming years. Just one talk does not a policy change make. If the Ballard Initiative receives only passing notice or is ignored entirely at the upcoming General Conference, then you will know it is DOA. Furthermore, the Ballard Initiative needs to be expanded to the Church as a whole: local leaders and the general membership need to get the word directly from senior LDS leaders that LDS scholars are the good guys, not the bad guys, and that our curriculum ought to incorporate LDS scholarship rather than folk doctrine and faith-promoting stories. I’ll believe this when I see it. Personally, I’d give the Ballard Initiative one chance in three of succeeding.

Let’s get some feedback. Has anyone heard any response from actual CES teachers? And if CES does faithfully implement the directive given by Elder Ballard, is that enough to meet the challenge? Is this the right blueprint for building a better boat, the New Ship Zion?

28 comments for “Elder Ballard on Building a Better Boat

  1. No actual CES teachers, but it came up at Ward Council right after it was given and most members of the council were already familiar (and pleased) with it. That was a surprise.

  2. I find your article interesting reading, and largely agree. But I think your analogy is a little bit off — rather than trying to fix or rebuild the Good Ship Zion, Elder Ballard seems to be giving instructions to those who man the oars how to row better.

    It’s a small point, but important. There is nothing wrong with the Ship, but we of the crew (top to bottom, excepting only the Captain) make mistakes from time to time. We fall off ourselves or we may even push others off or drag them off with us (intentionally or otherwise). Fortunately we have a Captain that can walk on water to rescue us.

  3. I’m curious about responses, especially from actual CES teachers. (Trying to) channel the one or two CES teachers I know, I think they would say (a) I know, and appreciate the opening door to discuss these things, but (b) I worry about bringing up more than students are ready for and will tend to hold back. More generally, I don’t want to challenge anybody’s testimony and ‘inoculation’ makes rational sense but is counter-intuitive or counter-instinctive.

  4. +1 for quoting one of the greatest movies ever made.

    I hope this line from Elder Ballard does not get buried among the other things he said:

    “This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to my own questions that I cannot answer myself. I seek help from my Brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve and from others with expertise in fields of Church history and doctrine.”

    I think this humble admission of not knowing EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING sets the right tone for all of us. And I doubt we would have seen a public admission like this from one of the Brethren, even just 15 years ago.

  5. “The problem is forty years of a dumbed-down correlated LDS curriculum, which has pushed doctrinal and historical scholarship, even ‘the best LDS scholarship available,’ to the margins of LDS discourse if not completely outside it. ”

    Exactly. Many of our problems are self-inflicted. Church leadership has not modeled the depth of gospel study either by the curriculum, Ensign, or public example. I say public, because I know in private at least several are well-read and good scholars. But General Conference has not historically been the place to go into any depth. So, following that apparent cue, CES and local leadership have generally not modeled any kind of serious interaction with scripture or Church history either. So the layfolk have followed those examples, and now it’s a problem we need to correct.

    Christian Kimball, I’ve seen a good bit of your response “b” recently, but it’s a sample size of 2: one professional seminary teacher, and one SP councilor. The suggestion has been that this was more for Institute teachers, and what Seminary kids need is spiritual experiences to fortify them against the day. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t think we should send kids on missions not knowing about any of this stuff. Morever, spiritual experience (however defined) and actual scripture study are not incompatible!

    Also, it was interesting to see the implicit disagreement with Elder Packer (RIP), who spoke out against any kind of innoculation as Ballard seems to use it. (Elder Packer used the word in a somewhat different sense, positively, elsewhere.)

    But here, he very clearly doesn’t like the idea.

    BKPacker In scripture the Lord said we’ve got to have milk before meat. Some things you can say with little reaction — it’s a matter of timing. Some things you can say privately and not broadcast. We refer to the gospel often as the “gospel of repentance.” I’m very glad for repentance, because repentance is to erase the mistakes of the past.

    Helen Whitney: To make mention of another point, going along with your point about milk and meat: children, parents, educators — they’re wondering if they’re preparing their children well enough for the bumps in the road in any religion including the world on the Internet. Wouldn’t it be better for kids to be trained by smart, faithful educators who can provide the necessary context, as opposed to letting them see a whole range of things on the Internet?

    BKP: I remember reading years and years ago that the neighbor of a mother with small children had chicken pox. She could see that it was coming their way, so looking at the pattern, she thought she’d get that over with. So she sent her children to work with those children so they’d get the chicken pox and get it over with. And it worked wonderfully until she found out it wasn’t chicken pox. It was smallpox!

    That’s where we are. It’s one thing to learn things individually — educators are all different, they do things differently. We don’t encourage our children to go out and have the so-called experience of it all, because a lot of them don’t come back.

    LDS.org source

  6. I don’t think it’ll help in the long run. There is a reason some church history is deemed to be not faith promoting. It’s because some church history is harmful to faith and belief. Polygamy is wierd. The priesthood ban issue doesn’t help either. So, inoculation will probably do more harm than good.

  7. Exiled. I disagree. Even before “inoculation” was a concept, I was inoculated. So, when I ran across work from the Tanners on my mission (back in the Dark Ages) I was able to put it in a context and framework I could continue to exercise my faith. That led to many other sources over the years, Dialogue, Sunstone, BYU Studies, Journal of Mormon History, etc. and long before the internet, there were ways to find out what we want to know. Perhaps because I sometimes had to hunt for them, I appreciated the efforts more (especially the efforts of those who produced the work–even the work I didn’t like or disagree with). I’ve never felt “inoculation” was harmful. The Elder Packer example is simply one more of a leadership style that I don’t think always served the Church well in spite of his motives and intentions.

  8. I don’t share the difficulties I have regarding women and the temple with sisters in my ward because I don’t want to plant seeds of doubt or discontent where there was none for them. I agree with inoculation in general but it is so difficult to do with a class full of kids on different points of a testimony scale.

  9. It’s very possible to see unity in both Elder Ballard’s talk and the air quote on smallpox by Pres. Packer. You should not just unwisely dump difficult issues on your kids without understanding it, as the women who sent her children into the home of smallpox would.

    The post above suggesting that unwise exposure to smallpox is an argument against smallpox is so classic of the typical ‘liberal’ (used in the non political sense) church member these days. So quick to use their intellect to contradict and create disunity with us and the brethren.

    It’s much more productive in terms of building faith and having an increased measure of the spirit to use our intellect to see how the words of the prophets support and build up each other rather than disagree.

    I don’t think President Packer was opposed to vaccination from that quote. Use your brain and construct a perspective that includes both viewpoints and you’ll be enlightened.

  10. “Inoculation Theory” is a social psychology theory developed in 1961 by William McGuire. Maybe Ballard is the first LDS leader to publicly advocate using it to retain members?

    Will it work? Probably for some. It works to retain people’s belief in all sorts of things when those beliefs are challenged, so why not religious belief?

    A better question seems to be whether there is a better alternative. Rather than “inoculate,” why not adjust the faith’s narratives to align more closely with the facts? Rather than manipulate the psychology of the members, why not focus on telling a more factually honest narrative?

  11. Two cents:

    Facts kill religion in general. I think the leadership knows this and this is why we see the manipulation responses. There is simply no proof for the exodus for example or for language differences coming from the Tower of Babel. Rationally applying these facts then points to religion as being myth. So, what the leadership is left with is manipulation, and appeals to tradition, for a good cause of course (in their minds).

  12. Exiled. “Facts kill religion in general”–False. It only kills when the set of facts adopted is clear cut in the mind of the beholder. So long as there is plausibility on the part of the person, they can exercise faith in what happened. However, it is incumbent upon the recipient to make sure that the “facts” are intellectually honest and that they know all the facts before they finalize their informed decision. Some of that involves the weight to give various testimony or observations. Two people can look at the same event and come up with differing interpretations. In a court of law, the fact-finder (a judge or jury) is obligated to look at various testimony, documentary evidence and other items and make a decision about what the facts are. They don’t always get it right even in those circumstances. Each side has a view of what the facts are and argue the evidence before the decision.

    “There is simply no proof for the exodus for example or for language differences coming from the Tower of Babel.”–Debatable. I’m sure in your mind, the evidence is in. At scholarly levels far above the paygrade of T&S, the argument on both those topics rages. Just a quick example is “Moses and the Gods of Egypt” by John J. Davis. There are many more. In other words, its not open and shut (except perhaps in your own mind). So where there is plausibility in the eyes of the student, they can chose to continue to exercise faith or not.

  13. Terry H:

    I think you should ask yourself why inoculation is necessary in order to stay with the “truth.” Does one have to be inoculated to believe in gravity or any other scientific principle? However, with religion, one needs to inoculate their kids in order to have them believe? It seems questionable.

  14. Terry H:

    Religion in general and Mormonism in particular are forever possible. However, as time marches on, they are more and more improbable.

  15. I think Brigham Young’s comments on truth are pertinent here…

    Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, (1997)

    “Mormonism,” so-called, embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to “Mormonism.” The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church. As for their morality, many of them are, morally, just as good as we are. All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church and Kingdom. “Mormonism” includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel. It is life, eternal life; it is bliss; it is the fulness of all things in the gods and in the eternities of the gods (DBY, 3).

    I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it (DBY, 2).

    I agree with Exiled….why must we be inoculated against truth?

  16. When I read this months First Presidency message about how teachers aren’t supposed to pour information into students brains, but are supposed to encourage daily discipleship, I can still see the tug and pull in what will happen in classrooms. Obviously the goal of gospel teaching isn’t to become masters of trivia, but if the push is daily discipleship above all else, the students aren’t going to have enough knowledge with what to do when they need to motivate themselves.

    No one is saying that we need to be immunized from the truth. Inoculation is more around showing students how the primary version of past events has built up in their minds that church members in the past were always perfect, and that’s very much not true. It’s also showing how we don’t know everything about everything, and while a class of just speculation is bad, periodically walking students through different mind exercises on different possibilities and their explanations and consequences isn’t bad either.

  17. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Two Cents (#10), I suspect the term “inoculation” means different things to different people. No doubt Elder Ballard has in mind the idea that early exposure to controversial issues of history and doctrine will make LDS youth less susceptible to the faulty criticisms of the Church that use these controversial issues as a wedge or starting point. I think that is only half the battle, however.

    A problem with the oversimplified narrative that has become the standard LDS narrative is that, for those who have internalized it, real LDS history, warts and all, becomes threatening. You can’t really inoculate against real history. The solution to this problem is a reformed and upgraded curriculum that embraces “the best of LDS scholarship,” to use Elder Ballard’s term. I see a reformed and upgraded curriculum as an essential component of the first type of inoculation, properly performed. Unless the curriculum is reformed and upgraded, most LDS teachers and leaders will not have the tools to do the job!

    Of course, religion is a topic on which reasonable people can differ. Reasonable Christians who reject Mormonism’s claims and reasonable atheists who reject any form of belief are unlikely to view any discussion of inoculation in the Mormon context as a positive thing. Inoculation is an insider discussion. If one is not, in one sense or another, thinking within Mormonism, the discussion doesn’t make much sense.

  18. Exiled and Two Cents – nobody I’m aware of in the discussion wants to inoculate LDS kids against our history (though they may use imprecise language to discuss the topic). In the most precise language – we are ‘inoculating’ against faulty and misguided criticisms of LDS history that have the potential to destroy a testimony. The only way to do this inoculation is to ‘align our narrative to match with the facts.’ So when we are calling for inoculation, we are calling for teaching the actual facts – the real history, presented in a faithful context so that when they encounter these same facts in an unfaithful context later, they will have the tools they need to be able to navigate their faith instead of leaving.

  19. @Exiled, @Pete et al: The inoculation is not against the truth, it is against the spin of those who would use their own narratives built on selective versions of the truth to destroy faith. Examples of Old Testament myths are indeed a perfect example. There are many faith-destroying narratives that can be built around understandings of scriptural accounts of things like the Exodus and the Tower of Babel, one of which is the narrative that either these are true events in the CSPAN sense or the gospel must be a pack of lies. The inoculation is against this kind of narrow thinking. An “inoculated” student of the gospel contemplates the motivations and cultural contexts of scriptural authors and understands the genres of scriptural writing, the role of myth in teaching principles of faith, and the twisty dangers of fundamentalism.

    @Sara suggested above that she avoids sharing her concerns so as not to infect others with them unnecessarily. Certainly many CES teachers feel the same way. Personally I would see the key as being the possession of credible answers to questions that can be troubling to some people. Raising a concern without having an answer or at least a productive approach to seeking an answer is probably just an act of selfishness. I thought that was one of Ballard’s points: figure these things out yourself, become experts (or find out to whom to turn), and then don’t shy away from entering into these conversations. To go back to the temple example, my wife sees all the standard “problems” some women have with the temple, but she has found answers and perspectives that remove these facts from the narratives that turn them into concerns, leaving them either simply as neutral facts or as empowering evidences of God’s love and respect for his daughters and Wife. The point simply being that nothing is inherently a concern–there are always going to be people with different perspectives who experience things a different way.

    I think one of the keys to all of this is a serious consideration of the context that turns some set of facts into a problem. For example, students from a culture that practices polygamy are unlikely to be concerned about that. Accepting that certain facts are inherently problematic is a huge pitfall. “Why is that a concern for some people and not for others” should always be one of the first questions asked in these discussions. Sometimes it will just make the element of concern go away, and other times it will raise important additional questions that can help better identify what the concern is. For example, this line of thinking can reveal underlying misogyny, fundamentalism, and provincialism. Perhaps it would reveal things that we aren’t concerned about that we should be. For example, students may be concerned about hot-button topics like gay marriage, polygamy, and the Book of Abraham but completely unconcerned with poverty, war, or human trafficking. A byproduct of inoculation could conceivably be a better focus on Christian discipleship.

  20. The problem is that the Church is an edifice built on the wrong foundations. The insisted-upon Joseph Smith story and the Book of Mormon simply do not stack up. The sight of an educated person, such as one expects to find in CES, proposing that the latter is a genuine record of Hebrew people, is utterly preposterous. The difficult, but much needed thing is in shifting the Church’s foundations to the New Testament.

  21. I did not include a link in the OP, but Boyd Peterson posted a nice discussion of the Ballard talk at his website.


    Here is part of his summary paragraph:

    The Internet, I believe, has been a historical revolution unlike anything we have seen since the invention of the printing press. We cannot expect pre-Internet methods of teaching to work in the Internet age. I applaud Elder Ballard’s vision of that future. … But it is also the kind of education we need to provide in our Sunday school and priesthood classes. If young people need this kind of honest and faithful curriculum, their parents do too. How else are they going to respond to their children’s questions, doubts, and concerns? How are they going to know not to call into question or report on a something a teacher has said in a seminary or institute class?

  22. Fellowbird;

    The New Testament has a host of problems as well. Read the gospels horizontally comparing and contrasting the various stories and then compare to history. There are many questions that arise such as where exactly was Jesus born? Why was there no census recorded anywhere other than in Luke? Also, the gospels were written in Greek by literate persons. The apostles weren’t literate. So, I don’t think the New Testament will save the church in the long run. It frankly looks like it is myth like the Book of Mormon.

  23. The boat is a temporary raft that receives occasional upgrades while docked.
    Don’t mistake the ship for the ultimate destination.

  24. After talking about how pure testimony conveys faith and that building faith requires effort, the crux of Elder Ballard’s argument is here:

    “Wise people do not rely on the Internet to diagnose and treat emotional, mental, and physical health challenges, especially life-threatening challenges. Instead, they seek out health experts, those trained and licensed by recognized medical and state boards. Even then, prudent people seek a second opinion.

    If that is the sensible course to take in finding answers for emotional, mental, and physical health issues, it is even more so when eternal life is at stake. When something has the potential to threaten our spiritual life, our most precious family relationships, and our membership in the kingdom, we should find thoughtful and faithful Church leaders to help us. And, if necessary, we should ask those with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help.

    This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to my own questions that I cannot answer myself. I seek help from my Brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve and from others with expertise in fields of Church history and doctrine.”

    1) To me the difference between a witch doctor and a doctor is that the doctor uses methods derived from clinical trials (i.e. scientific evidence) whereas the witch doctor derives his knowledge from personal tutorials from older witch doctors (i.e. not based on science). The medical and state boards enforce medical ethics and standards based on science and impose legal duties towards the patient—to seek the best interest of the patient above other considerations. A witch doctor may be more concerned about offending powerful spirits or maintaining cultural traditions than acting on behalf of the patient. Witch doctors don’t have legal duties towards their patients. At the same time, a witch doctor can often represent the best aspects of a culture and they help interpret things through the lens of that culture in a way that conveys wisdom. Finally, both witch doctors and doctors can unintentionally provide benefit through the placebo effect.

    2) So for me:
    BoM historicity: –> go with the DNA and archeology experts
    Book of Abraham: –> go with the egyptologists
    New Testament historicity: –> go with textual critics
    Church history: –> go with academic historians

    3) However, I take the brethren very seriously when they talk about how to live or how to serve God and my fellow men. I can find inspiration and guidance for how to live my life in the Book of Mormon. I can “follow the Spirit.”

    I am still in the tribe if the tribe will have me.

    4) I don’t think of the essays as progress, I don’t think anything of importance is being conceded in them. LDS liberals are naive to think so. I believe the brethren are entirely unreconstructed with respect to the issues the essays address.

    5) One last quibble from Elder Ballard’s talk, which is a microcosm of the whole situation:

    “Phoebe followed the prophet and gathered with the Saints in Ohio and eventually to Utah, where she died a faithful Latter-day Saint and equally yoked as the wife of Church President Wilford Woodruff.”

    This sentence should end with

    “equally yoked as one of at least 9 wives of Church President Wilford Woodruff.”

  25. Exiled: No, if you are looking for scripture on which you can place absolute factual reliance, you will have a long search. But I don’t see what good it does to take a 19th-century document which is so absurdly not what it claims to be, as the Book of Mormon, and teach children to hold a literal belief in it; and denounce anyone who questions its origins. However, the religious world has had 2000 years to digest the New Testament. And there is a body of scholarship which evaluates it from all kinds of perspectives; and which is available to allcomers to read. You do not have literally to believe in the virgin birth in order to find righteous value in Christ’s sermons, or a compelling resonance in the language of the apostles. No one should be judged according to their preparedness to accept something as being “true”, and recite liturgical commitment to it.

  26. As always, @Fellowbird, comments such as yours beg the question, “Well if it isn’t what it claims to be, then what is the Book of Mormon?” Because it “is so absurdly not” a product of the frontier milieu where it emerged, since it would have required the possible authors to know absolutely everything that could possible be known in their area in order to produce it, not to mention the narrative skill required. And thus, we get back to the message of inoculation: don’t believe every contrary opinion flung around by some anonymous online author as if it were obviously God’s own truth.

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